powered by AFI
The three films in Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai trilogy are among the most widely seen Japanese films in the U.S. In fact the first part, Musashi Miyamoto (1954), was only the fourth Japanese film to receive distribution in America; the first three were Rashomon (1950), Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Gate of Hell (1953). An early color production by Toho Studios, it became one of the most expensive Japanese films produced to date, with over 1,000 extras for the battle scenes. Most of the film was shot on location, which required a six month shooting schedule but it gives the film a memorable sense of immediacy. (The second and third films in the trilogy rely more heavily on studio sets.)
The historical figure of Musashi Miyamoto (ca. 1584-1645) was a brilliant freelancing swordfighter who remained undefeated after some sixty duels and also excelled in the arts. Toward the end of his life, he wrote The Book of the Five Rings (1643), a study in the tactics and philosophy of combat which has been translated into dozens of languages and is still widely read today. However, the film's plot derives not directly from Musashi's biography but from the popular novel Musashi Miyamoto by Eiji Yoshikawa, which was first published as a newspaper serial from 1935-1939. The novel begins with Takezo's departure from the village of Miyamoto and concludes with his duel with Kojiro Sasaki on Ganryu Island.
Part I of the Samurai trilogy, Musashi Miyamoto, depicts his origins as a swordsman. When his home village of Miyamoto is sacked by bandits, Takezo runs off with his friend Matahachi to become samurais. Though Otsu is pledged to marry Matahachi, she falls in love with Takezo in what becomes a lifelong obsession. Akemi, the daughter of a woman who strips gear from fallen samurai, falls in love with him as well. Takezo later fights on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara and is taken captive, then trained by the priest Takuan in the ways of Zen Buddhism. After his training he adopts the name of Musashi.
Part I, as with the other films in the trilogy, was a remake of a Musashi Miyamoto trilogy that Inagaki had directed during the war between 1941 and 1942. During the American occupation, all known prints of the films were destroyed; only Part III survives in an incomplete version. However, considering the way that Toshiro Mifune's persona dominates the trilogy, which provides one of his best roles of the Fifties, it is difficult to imagine them surpassing what Inagaki accomplishes in this film. The actress Kaoru Yachigusa, who plays Otsu in all three films, also played the lead role in an Italian-Japanese coproduction of Madame Butterfly (1954), produced around the same time. She is still active in film today. According to a New York Times article, Kuroemon Onoe, who plays the priest Takuan, was a Kabuki actor who had also performed for three years at the American Pasadena Playhouse.
A 1955 New York Times article noted that the actor William Holden backed the US release of the film, under the title Samurai, in a profit-sharing arrangement with Fine Arts Films, Inc. Reportedly, Holden had been impressed when he saw the production underway at Toho Studios. In order to make the film more accessible to an American audience, Holden himself recorded explanatory narration for the soundtrack to accompany the subtitled dialogue. Holden's efforts paid off, since the film received an honorary Academy Award as Best Foreign Film. However, the second and third episodes in the trilogy did not receive U.S. distribution until 1967.
Direction: Hiroshi Inagaki
Script: Tokuhei Wakao and Hiroshi Inagaki, based on Hideji Hojo's adaptation of the novel Musashi Miyamoto by Eiji Yoshikawa
Director of Photography: Jun Yasumoto
Lighting: Shigeru Mori
Art Direction: Makoto Sono, Kisaku Ito
Music: Ikuma Dan
Cast: Toshiro Mifune (Takezo/Musashi Miyamoto); Kaoru Yachigusa (Otsu); Eiko Miyoshi (Osugi); Rentaro Mikuni (Honiden Matahachi); Mariko Okada (Akemi); Akihiko Hirata (Seijuro Yoshioka); Kuroemon Onoe (Takuan); Mitsuko Mito (Oko); Kusuo Abe (Temma Tsujikaze).
by James Steffen
Galbraith, Stuart IV. The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. London: Faber and Faber, 2001.
Thompson, Howard. "Pictures and People." New York Times, August 28, 1955.